NY Mets success brings Jiggs McDonald back to Islanders booth

Getty Images
Getty Images

When Jeurys Familia’s 21st pitch of the ninth inning in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series landed for a third and final strike, the New York Mets moved onto the 2015 World Series, and hockey announcer Jiggs McDonald’s illustrious broadcasting career was extended by another two weeks.

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Jiggs McDonald's dreams of a hockey-playing career were scuttled by an inability to skate backwards. He wanted to find a way to participate in the game he loved. His interest in radio, and his ability to talk a good game, gave him that chance.

Influenced by three sports broadcasting greats — Danny Gallivan, Foster Hewitt, and Norm Marshall — McDonald would eventually gain enough experience in the field to feel confident to spend 10 months applying for the job as play-by-play announcer for the expansion Los Angeles Kings. After meetings with then-owner Jack Kent Cooke and future team general manager Larry Regan, he was offered the job on March 15, 1967, seven months before the franchise began their inaugural season.

McDonald would move on to the Atlanta Flames in 1972, but eight years later he would find his home with the New York Islanders beginning with the season following their first Stanley Cup.

The funny thing about how McDonald landed in New York? The Flames were moving to Calgary and the team wasn’t going to bringing him with them. As that occurred, the Islanders then-play-by-play man, Steve Albert, who also called Mets games, was given an ultimatum from his bosses to choose either hockey or baseball.

Albert went with baseball and that’s how McDonald got his Islanders start.

When the Mets returned to the playoffs in 2006, current Islanders and Mets play-by-play man Howie Rose suggested McDonald, who had retired in 2003, fill in while he was away doing baseball. (Fortunately for Rose his bosses were a little more accepting of his dual roles than Albert’s.)

Nearly a decade later, McDonald can still be found behind the mic filling in for Rose during Islanders games.

“He played a major role, his love of nostalgia,” McDonald said of Rose. “He suggested they get me back for those games. Then, when he re-did his contract, allowing him to miss selected games each season, he expressed the feeling that I should continue to do the games. This was/is Howie Rose's doing.”

From his start with the Islanders in 1980, it was evident to McDonald that there was something special brewing in Uniondale with Al Arbour’s squad featuring future Hall of Fame players Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, and Clark Gillies.

“The attention to detail at practice, the meetings that took place to review video with the power play unit, the penalty kill unit… just [the] overall preparation and knowledge of the other team and especially the goalie tendencies,” McDonald said. “I knew there was an intensity, a far larger degree of preparation and everyone had bought in. They'd won one [Stanley Cup] and knew what it took to play at that level for that long.”

The Islanders would win three of their four straight Cups to start McDonald’s tenure with the franchise.

McDonald was partnered with Ed Westfall, the Islanders’ first ever captain, while working for SportsChannel New York. They would spend 15 seasons together, from the dynasty years through just before the dawning of the Mike Milbury error era.

When he wasn’t calling Islanders games, McDonald also did national work for SportsChannel America, USA Network and later FOX. Those opportunities would allow him to be part of some memorable hockey moments, like Wayne Gretzky’s record-breaking 802nd goal in 1994 when he passed Gordie Howe.

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Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Retirement didn’t keep McDonald away from the broadcast booth for long. Along with getting back to do Islanders games, the 1990 Foster Hewitt Memorial Award recipient has also called Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers games since 2003.

As the Islanders moved west 29 miles to Barclays Center this season, so too did McDonald, wwho has been at the mic for a handful of Islanders games to start the 2015-16 campaign while Rose follows the Mets. Despite the mixed views of the new rink from fans, it seems to be quite stellar for the broadcasters.

“The location we work from at Barclays is the best in the league,” McDonald said. “We’re low with a great view of the game. You can feel the hits, feel the speed of the game. Yet up higher you can see how things develop on the ice a little easier and the game seems a little slower when the booth is higher; but overall this is an ideal location and I'd say it's perhaps just a touch easier than at the Coliseum, taking nothing away from the great position we had at the wonderful old hockey rink.”

Forty-eight years after getting his start, McDonald isn’t sure exactly how many games he’s called. He reached the 3,000 game milestone during his final full-time year in 2003, but the large number of spot duty calls over the last decade-plus would pull that number up much higher.

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There’s no game day superstition for McDonald. A big lunch followed by combing through game notes while drinking coffee or water is his typical routine. Having been involved in the game for six decades, much has stayed the same, but there’s certainly been some changes, like how his game calls have evolved over time.

“For the first 14 years, I was doing a simulcast, playing to the radio audience as well as TV, so I made sure I did more play-by-play than now,” McDonald said. “In fact, I felt I was a missionary for the game of hockey, teaching the game via broadcasts in both the LA and Atlanta markets. I didn't need to do that as much, if at all, in the New York market, but I still did simulcast here for the first season or two.

“Now, I also know that a good portion of the audience is riveted to their seat watching the game in its entirety and rely on a certain degree of excitement to cause them to look up or pay attention from another room or wherever. I try to do a little less hard play-by-play and let the picture tell the story; but for many it's still hard to follow the puck on the TV screen.”

At 76, McDonald shows no signs of slowing down. His calls remain as energetic as they were back in the 1980s when a certain Long Island-based Yahoo writer was growing up listening to them. With the Mets blossoming into annual contenders, the opportunities to continue calling Islanders games will likely still be there for years to come.

So how long does McDonald think he’ll continue to be behind the mic?

“I've told the Islanders, Madison Square Garden Network and my family that I don't ever want to embarrass the team, the network or the game by stumbling around on the air,” McDonald said, “so if they hear or see something, tell me and I'll step aside. That could be at anytime.

“That said, I must admit that I enjoy getting back in the booth, on the planes, into hotels and arenas; just being around hockey people keeps me young. I've always loved the sport and those who play the games, the people who administer, officiate or regulate the games, as well as the people in the television and radio business who continue to come up with new technology or ways to make the game come alive on your screen.

“If I can do a few games again next season, I'll be able to say I did NHL play-by-play over 50 seasons. That would be significant and I think I could then say ‘No, I don’t do that anymore’ if they were to call.

“Oh, I know I'd miss it, but there comes a time.”

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Sean Leahy is the associate editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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